Time to go back to basics on belonging

Rebecca Hodgson argues that building belonging amongst students requires empathetic, understanding, and supportive academic staff - and students spending time with eachother

Rebecca Hodgson is a Professor of Higher Education at the University of Manchester

In the dynamic (read: incredibly challenging) landscape of 21st century higher education, the concept of “student belonging” has taken centre stage – see Wonkhe’s Secret Life of Students 2024, and its recent podcast which talks at length about student loneliness and belonging.

Yet something that isn’t being discussed enough is the integration of belonging with the core academic experience, and how that should be our core focus given increasingly constrained resources.

In my view, the situation we are facing necessitates a reimagined approach to building belonging and mattering into the student experience, via the core components of our educational offer.

I think that this shift might require an evolution in the academic role – particularly where such ideas are more revolutionary – transforming it to meet the specific needs of today’s students.

Proper students

In my day, and the days of my fellow Gen Xers, the university experience was as much (more?) about life outside the lecture theatre as within it.

Extracurricular activities, societies, events, and let’s call them “social engagements” were a key part of shaping a sense of belonging and community in my time at university.

But reflecting on this increasingly distant past reveals a stark contrast to today’s student lifestyle. The socio-economic landscape has significantly shifted – while some students have always worked (I did), many students now juggle extensive work hours with their studies, with commuting from home much more common.

At some universities, the “commuter student” is in the majority. This increasingly time-poor and cash-poor demographic will clinically prioritise what and when they attend. We want them to engage more with everything we have to offer – we want them to feel they belong – but they will make a cost-benefit analysis decision on all of it.

This should lead us to a concentrated focus on the essentials – the quality (and nature) of our teaching and student learning, and the ways in which these core activities can (and should) build belonging and mattering in our student cohorts.

The harsh realities facing the sector (its institutions, its staff, and its students) provide compelling reasons not to outsource student belonging to the extra-curricular aspects of university life, though these of course can and do offer high-value enrichment to the core offer.

But belonging, mattering, and the building of community should be woven primarily into the core experiences – lectures, seminars, and workshops – where student engagement has the potential to be most potent, and where students have a primary reason to turn up.

And to those saying “but they don’t attend” – well maybe they would if they saw the value, and they enjoyed themselves.

It should go without saying that this integration is not just about enhancing student outcomes but about nurturing a community where students feel valued, supported, and connected.

Post-Covid, and considering access limitations for our students, the role of technology also has a key role to play. Used well, digital platforms enable connectedness, offering flexible, inclusive spaces for collaboration and engagement.

Or are we dancer

But the essence of community building lies in the human encounter – empathetic, understanding, and supportive academic staff, and a community of peers who might also become friends. For this, we want (and they want) to spend time together IRL.

For this to happen, we need a transformation in the academic role – and arguably at some types of institution more than others. Academics should be able to see themselves not only as disciplinary experts, but also as facilitators of learning environments where belonging and community are paramount.

This shift may well require investment in staff development, equipping all academics, and not just the “teaching specialists”, with the skills and understanding necessary to cultivate these inclusive, supportive spaces. Every academic who teaches needs to understand what’s needed.

Building belonging into the curriculum involves more than just collaborative, participative learning techniques or group projects, although these, along with a compassionate pedagogy, are a great start.

But it’s also about creating a sense of ownership and mutual respect within the learning community and lighting the fire of interest and engagement. Academic staff need to be able to encourage and facilitate discussions that value every student’s voice, encouraging diverse perspectives, and demonstrate genuine interest in students’ well-being and success.

This approach will create a sense of belonging and mattering among students, key to both academic and personal development, and far more likely to result in greater engagement and better outcomes.

As the higher education landscape continues to evolve, and as we face ever greater financial challenges across the sector, this is a call to arms for a back-to-basics approach to belonging. It’s not complicated, but it might mean a paradigm shift for some institutions in terms of their relationship with teaching, learning and the student experience.

And for our SUs, perhaps what’s needed is a renewed focus on building subject-based communities rather than investing all the energy into traditional clubs and societies. A valuable adage in teaching is “start from where the students are, not where you want them to be”. This should be the starting point for all of us involved and invested in building a brilliant student experience in today’s universities.

5 responses to “Time to go back to basics on belonging

  1. Great article. Agree completely. Mattering, relationships and connectedness so important right now.

  2. I agree that community and belonging is very important, and that extracurricular activities are not necessarily the answer. However, speaking as an academic member of staff, putting the onus on us is problematic for a number of reasons. This work isn’t recognised and it’s also gendered. In my workplace a lot of time and effort goes into student engagement coupled with growing expectations of staff involvement, offering an ever-growing number of events. This article seems to suggest that belonging could be created in the classroom but isn’t that already happening? A bigger but is that in the current climate it’s dangerous to spend too much time on work that doesn’t contribute to career development and mobility. Yes, universities pay lip service to belonging, including my own, but that doesn’t mean individuals who spend time and effort on this are valued. Realistically, we all need to spend as much time as we can on research and grant applications, otherwise we end up losing our jobs and livelihoods. Student engagement should also start from where we as academics are.

  3. Vuvuzela, thanks for this comment. I hear you. Your observations are very much an illustration of why, in some cases / places, a fundamental cultural shift is needed in the institution if we want academics to feel motivated, rewarded, and recognised for the work they do in relation to students. Whether we want it to be the case or not, students tend to place the highest value on their interactions with academics, and their experiences on their modules and courses – for the vast majority (expect perhaps elite athletes), this is their primary reason for being with us. I agree that when interactions are judged to be ‘pastoral’ or in the emotional intelligence sphere, the work can become gendered. We may always have to challenge this. But what I’m suggesting isn’t for academics to do more in the teaching/learning space; its for academics to use the time they have differently. Time is precious and as you point out, for some colleagues extremely pressured in relation to research / grant income. But even small changes to how we teach / interact with students can make a big difference to how students feel. And they don’t take more time, just a different approach. Colleagues need to feel empowered (and supported) to do this. As a side note, we’re more likely to lose jobs and livelihoods across HE if we fail to recruit students – as their fees pay the vast majority of academic salaries rather than research income. This isn’t the reason we should have an increased focus on them – I think it’s our moral responsibility to do so – but it is worth highlighting.

  4. This is a very interesting piece, thank you. So many different facets will affect the student experience. That said academics are strapped for time to even do the basics so unless work flow models change tutors may not want to invest ‘extra’ time they don’t get paid for. I find that students want to be involved in their learning so small changes to how content is delivered is key to whatever we are teaching and needs to be a two way street. With students less able to communicate a discourse with them is sometimes problematical. Perhaps it’s time to work on those communication skills for everyone.

  5. Can you give an example of using time differently and small changes to how we interact and teach? What is this different approach? Thanks for the post!

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